Political Art of M.T. Liggett
For over 25 years M.T. Liggett has voiced his opinion to travelers along US 400 with his hand-built art. The sculptures, hundreds of them, stand three rows deep and stretch along M.T.'s property line for more than a quarter-mile. "I'll be blatantly blunt with you," he told us. "What's out there along the highway pisses a bunch of people off."
Well, maybe a little. Former Kansas Treasurer Dennis McKinney has his face in a toilet, with a sign, "Out To Lunch." Former Governor Bill Graves is a fat, decapitated rat. A porta-potty is labeled, "Mullinville Town Council Chamber." The Kansas State Board of Education is portrayed as a head shoved up a human ass.
The term "outsider art" has been diluted by decades of academic massage and collector mainstreaming, but it seems to us that M.T. has stayed true to his personal and caustic punk art vision.
"I'm not a Libertarian. I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat," M.T. told us. "I don't have any agenda." His flapping, whirling, and static metal sculptures are set on poles, some 20 feet tall. He was born on the property in 1930 and, aside from some years in the military, has lived in Mullinville all his life.
M.T.'s workshop is an old barn with a dirt floor, around the corner from his pasture gallery. His tools are a plasma cutter and an arc welder. His material is metal: junked farm machinery, car parts, road signs, railroad equipment. "If I just think of something, I make it," he told us on a 2002 visit, chalking the design on the metal, then setting to work with the plasma torch. "You draw it out, cut it out, and that's it."
M.T. is a big man with ill-tempered gray hair; large, weather-beaten hands; and a sharp, gruff voice. "Most people, they ain't got no guts," he told us. "You gotta have a strong opinion or you're nothing." M.T.'s speech is as blunt as his attitude is cantankerous. "When I put up a piece of art, I don't ever ask anybody if they like it or they don't like it," he told us. "If you like it, that's fine. If you don't, I don't care."
Some people do not like M.T. Liggett's art. Or, rather, they don't like some of his art. Everyone enjoys his windmills, gyros, and whirligigs, spinning in the prairie wind. Almost everyone appreciates his fanciful creations: his grinning dogs, ancient gods, chickens in boots. Most folks enjoy his many exaggerated representations of his former girlfriends, such as Tokyo Rose, a blonde who he met on the Tokyo Ginza when he was in the Navy; and Marilee, "the honey-haired enchantress."
Where M.T. runs into trouble is with his political art. He calls these "totems," but really they're cartoons carved in metal: human caricatures with long, warty noses, buck teeth, pot bellies, giant feet, and balloon butts. The two President Bushes, for example, are dismissed as "bureaucratic maggots" and "political hoes." Hillary Clinton holds a communist hammer and sickle, and her body has been replaced by a large Nazi swastika.
Is M.T. worried that people might be offended? "Absolutely not," he said. "It doesn't bother me the slightest bit."
Despite his posturing, M.T. is proud of his art and enjoys being appreciated for it. In 2016 one of us stopped by his workshop for an unannounced visit -- always a dangerous thrill -- but was warned away by a neighbor who said M.T. was in a particularly bad mood. So we called M.T. in early 2017. He told us we shouldn't have listened to his neighbor. "I don't like talking to people who are ignorant by choice," he said. "But if you got brains enough to talk to me, I like to talk."
We told M.T. that his highway artwork seemed faded and rusty. He told us that he'd been in poor health, which had forced him to neglect his roadside totems (This was confirmed by Rosslyn Schultz at the Grassroots Art Center, who told us that M.T. was warned by his doctors to quit making art years ago). He said that he'd already arranged to have his artwork turned over to "thoughtful people" when he died, and that, "If they throw it away, that's their business. I won't know about it."
Nevertheless, M.T. said that dying isn't something he worries about, and that he hoped to put some new art out by the highway soon. We asked if he was inspired by America's current politics. "Man, I'll tell you," he said, "if the politics of the day inspire you, you've got to be sick in the head."